The candidates running for election chief in the battleground state of Georgia sparred Tuesday over the impact of the state’s controversial 2021 election law and their records defending the right to vote.
The contest features one of the country’s best-known secretaries of state – Republican Brad Raffensperger, who famously rebuffed Donald Trump’s request to “find” the votes needed to overturn his loss in the Peach State. His refusal – and later star turn as a witness before the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol – has burnished his reputation as a defender of election integrity as he seeks a second term.
“I’ve had to stand up to incredible pressure,” the Republican said during Tuesday’s debate, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. “Many people buckled and folded. I didn’t, and I won’t.”
His Democratic challenger, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, argued that Georgia’s controversial election law, SB202 – which Raffensperger supports – has erected new hurdles for the state’s voters and election workers.
This midterm marks the first major election carried out in the state since the law was enacted. It prompted denunciations from civil rights groups and corporate leaders, including a decision by Major League Baseball to relocate its All-Star Game from Atlanta. Among other things, the law added new voter identification requirements to cast ballots by mail, imposed limits on the availability of ballot drop boxes and made it a crime for third-party groups to hand out food and water to voters as they wait in line at polling places.
SB202 also made it explicit that any individual voter could challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of other Georgians, unleashing tens of thousands of voter challenges from conservative activists in recent months. And although most have been dismissed, they have consumed election workers’ time and attention as they also tried to prepare for the general election.
On Tuesday, Nguyen said she would work to repeal the provisions of the law that “have added additional burden on our election workers,” including the mass challenges. She said she also would develop a plan to protect poll workers and their family members from harassment.
Raffensperger said the legislature should “reform” that provision to avert “frivolous challenges” that “just gum up the works.”
But he also defended efforts to ensure the state’s voting rolls are accurate and pointed to strong turnout during Georgia’s first day of early voting Monday to rebut claims that the law had suppressed voting in the state.
He said nearly double the number of voters had cast ballots on the first day of early in-person voting than had done so during the last midterm election four years ago.
In an election year in which GOP voters in several key states have rallied behind secretary of state nominees who back Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election, Raffensperger is one of the few politicians to buck Trump and survive to the general election. In May, he pulled off a major political upset by beating his Trump-endorsed challenger, Georgia Rep. Jody Hice, outright in the primary without needing to win a runoff. That national profile has made him a tougher target for Nguyen, who has been a rising political star in her own right.
She has put expanding access to the ballot at the center of her candidacy. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees also is seeking to make history by becoming the first Asian American elected to a statewide political office in this increasingly racially and ethnically diverse state.
On the stump and again on the debate stage Tuesday, Nguyen seized on Raffensperger’s views on abortion in an attempt to gain ground.
When he was a state lawmaker, Raffensperger sponsored a resolution that proposed a constitutional amendment to recognize “the paramount right to life of all human beings as persons at any stage of development.” The measure failed, and Raffensperger argues his position on abortion is not relevant to the job he now holds.
During the televised face-off with Raffensperger and libertarian Ted Metz, Nguyen said: “I’m the only candidate on this stage who is both pro-choice and pro-democracy.”
She also cast Raffensperger’s office as mishandling an investigation into a breach of the election office in Coffee County, Georgia. As previously reported by CNN, recently released surveillance video shows a Republican county official escorted two operatives working with an attorney for Trump into the county’s election offices on the same day a voting system there had been breached.
Raffensperger’s office initially expressed skepticism about the breach. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is now investigating, and Raffensperger last month said his office would replace voting equipment in the county.
“It’s been 21 months and no one has been held criminally accountable,” Nguyen said Tuesday.
Raffensperger said he believes that “what happened in Coffee County will have a thorough investigation and people that broke the law should be held accountable and sent to jail.”